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Everybody’s Talking About Us

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that more and more people are talking about the role of communications in philanthropy.  These range from discussions about what foundations need to do to be more visible and transparent to how to use communications to advance the work they do.

These aren’t just back and forths taking place within the Communications Network, where one expects to  find them.  But the topic is being raised more frequently — and with greater urgency (and sometimes passion) — at non-communications conferences around the country, across the blogosphere, and from others whose job it is to chronicle the general state of philanthropy.

A recent example of this trend is the fact that The Foundation Review (TFR), which only began publishing a year ago to help improve foundation practices, has devoted its entire fourth — and forthcoming — issue to an exploration of the strategic use of communications within and among foundations.

In explaining why communications earned an entire issue, Teri Behrens, TFR’s editor, offers these observations that are sure to get communicators in philanthropy nodding with approval. She writes:

Foundations have long used communications to serve their own management, administrative and reporting needs. They have communicated about the availability of funds and the awarding of grants, staff changes and board appointments, and donations received. More recently, however, foundations have begun using strategic communications, either directly or through grantees, to further their social change agendas and to work towards their missions.

To illustrate the evolving and different roles communications plays in foundations, as well as highlighting its potential to do more, articles in the issue examine communications practices that offer lessons to others in the field, describe tools and approaches some foundations are deploying, and discuss and analyze how communications can be more fully integrated into grantmaking and evaluation activities.

For example, one article looks at how The Annie E. Casey Foundation is using the KIDS COUNT Network to support policy change and improve conditions for vulnerable children and families.  Another highlights a project of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation to improve the civility of public discourse and the role communications played in the effort.  In a piece titled, Going Deeper: Can Investigative Reporters Add Value to Assessment and Evaluation?, Larry “Bud” Meyer, former Communications Network board chair, writes about the Knight Foundation’s use of journalists to review past foundation efforts. Edith Asibey, Justin van Fleet, and Toni Parras share the results of a study on current knowledge and practices in evaluating foundation communications. (This was the research at the heart of the toolkit — Are We There Yet? — produced in 2008 for the Communications Network by Asibey Consulting.)

In commenting on the articles in the issue as well as many of the submissions from which they were selected, Behrens notes that descriptions of tools were the most frequent and that “many of the submissions were reports of what foundations were doing, rather than tested tools or the results of the work.”  To her, this suggest “that these areas of philanthropic work are at earlier stages of development, where the nature of the work itself is still being clarified.”

I couldn’t agree more with the observation that tools and how-to’s still dominate our knowledge of communications practice.  And that also suggests that we need to to do more to demonstrate what communications are helping foundations achieve.  The more we can show, the more we can encourage wider adoption of and support for communications activities that add, and in measurable ways, to the work foundations do.  As noted, there’s already a lot of talk about harnessing the power of communications to advance philanthropy, and support for these efforts are coming from other quarters besides communications professionals who work for foundations.

Let’s not squander this opportunity. 

(The Foundation Review is expected to mail on February 24, and all current members of the Communications Network will receive a complimentary copy. Members can also get a 10% discount on subscriptions by going to; use code CN10 to get the discount. You can also subscribe over the phone by calling 1-800-627-0326.)


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